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Wednesday 21 December 2011

Words Beginning with P, like Prozac, Piracy, Plagiarism, Planet and Publicity

This morning The Guardian reports what El Pais reported yesterday and some have tweeted: Spanish novelist stops writing novels because of piracy.

The Spanish have an unenviable record as some of the world’s leading download pirates. Behind this item of news is a recent judgement in which a young software designer called Pablo Soto was absolved in a trial brought by various publishers of music, film and books. Indeed the publishers had to pay all the costs. They have appealed.

But this is also a personal story. Lucia Etxebarria (1966) is the novelist involved. She came to fame in 1997 with a book called 'Amor, Curiosidad, Prozac y Dudas'. (Love, Curiosity, Prozac and Doubts).

By using Prozac in the title she was, of course, at least alluding to Elizabeth Wurzel’s 1994 novel 'Prozac Nation'.

According to the magazine Interviu, she did more than allude. In 2001 the magazine accused her of plagiarism in that book and in Estacion de Infierno where she had borrowed from Spanish poet Antonio Colina. In 2003, a court ruled that the magazine had reported ‘what was true'.

In 2006 Lucia settled out of court with the psychologist Jorge Castello who claimed she had used material from an article of his.

None of this changes that she does have talents, has been a considerable seller, has an honorary degree from the University of Aberdeen and, among other prizes, won the Premio Planeta in 2004. I have blogged on this ‘prize’ before. It is in fact an advance and is awarded in time for Christmas – it has been a tradition for years in Spain to give the winner as a present, usually to fathers. ‘Better than socks’ is the phrase.

What is interesting is the passions Lucia can raise. I checked on Wikipedia before writing this. The English version was temporariy nobbled. What in Spanish is 'escritor' (writer) was rendered as ‘plagiarist’ in English. She has been verbally assaulted by many pirates on the social networks. The vehemence and the hate are impressive.

The Spanish like to think their Indignados started the Occupy movement. Her critics are more than indignant. There are some as dumb as the girls in last summer’s English riots who thought small shopkeepers were ‘rich’. Others appear to be weighed down by the Generation X factor – there but for the cruelties of fate go I. Somewhere between stalkers and trolls they behave as if they own her.

But I suspect some of them feel betrayed, saw her as leading the way. No, I don’t think this is a novelist being hoist on her own petard. Yes, it appears her latest book (not in ebook) is not selling as well as previous productions. Actually that is a pretty common case. Spain has just acquired and there are signs that what has taken years in other countries is being implemented very fast. Javier Marias mentioned that a worried bookseller had told him that he had shifted just 12 copies of his best-selling novelist in 14 days.

So this is 'un toque de atencion'. A kind of ‘pay attention’. It’s about publicity more than piracy.

This blog is hardly Christmassy but I suppose it adds up to a stocking filler.

Have a Happy Christmas everyone!

Monday 12 December 2011

Defrosting the Bird and Killing the Sprouts

When I was young I remember an Italian visitor to our house describing British Christmas cooking as ‘defrosting the bird and killing the sprouts.’

Years later, when I lived in Spain the story was very different. Around the end of November, live turkeys would begin to appear on the verandas along the street as families fed them up in preparation for Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). About a week before Christmas I got into the lift with an eleven-year-old neighbour and asked her how their turkey was coming along. Nice and plump, she said. She seemed quite excited. Then she told me it would be killed the next day. Ah, I said. And who does that? She turned to me with a spine-chilling, gleam in her eye. ‘I do,’ she said. ‘I do it every year.’

I got out of the lift feeling quite disturbed. She was actually looking forward to the killing. I had no trouble gutting and jointing a bird, but would not fancy wringing its neck. Then I asked myself if we had all become too squeamish. The meat we eat must be killed. We are happy to eat it, but only if someone else kills it, preferably out of sight. Perhaps my young neighbour’s attitude was really more healthy. She was taking part in a matter-of-fact, life-death-food ritual.

My reflections on our relationship with blood and guts were rekindled soon after Christmas. We were in England spending a few days with relatives, when the doorbell rang. I opened it to find a neighbour holding up an, enormous, gleaming, salmon trout he had just caught. “For you!’ he said. My relative recoiled at the sight. The fish she normally bought from the local supermarket was rectangular shaped, frozen, wrapped in plastic, and came without bones. I sat her down in a comfortable chair and then went to the kitchen to deal with the neighbour’s generous gift.

When I took her a cup of tea next morning, I couldn’t help noticing, on her bed-side table, the lurid cover of the bloodthirsty crime novel she was reading.

Bertrand Russell said that he read murder stories to stop himself from murdering people, which seems a good reason. I sometimes wonder what became of my little Spanish neighbour. I do hope she developed a taste for crime fiction.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Lost Children Found

Earlier this year I blogged about Spain’s ‘Robbed Children’. During the Franco regime and for some twenty years after his death in 1975, a large number of new born children were removed from their natural parents and ‘sold on’ to adoptive parents. Doctors and member of the Church were involved in this business and the real parents were told their child had died.

The BBC produced a documentary on the distress caused and showed it last October. (See my last blog post about this). Amongst the cases they followed was an American citizen living in Austin Texas called Randy Ryder. He is now forty but only found out his parents were not really his parents twelve or thirteen years ago. One of the difficulties for children seeking their real parents is that documents like birth certificates were systematically falsified. Adoptive parents were recorded as the biological parents.

The documentary followed him through DNA testing to see whether or not he was the lost brother that a family were trying to track down. The DNA test showed he was not.

It’s a tough set of circumstances and the DNA register set up to help is necessarily limited. Of the roughly 1,500 legal cases opened only 6 so far have resulted in a DNA match.

In today’s El Pais it is reported that Randy has now found his mother. There is a twist. For a start she is not Spanish but South African and now living in London. Nor was he ‘robbed’. For an aspiring, 25 year old actress in Malaga, his birth was inconvenient and she gave him up for adoption. They are going to meet soon.

I am certainly not going to judge anyone but will also say that over 200 of the cases have been ‘archivado’ – shelved – because the mothers were found to have collaborated in the sale of their children. That’s how things are.

El Pais however also gives a case in which a mother and daughter (who have chosen anonymity) have been reunited through the DNA register. At first the mother was both upset and incredulous. She had been told she had given birth to a stillborn son. Indeed, she refused to accept the results of a second DNA test. It wasn’t until she agreed to meet her daughter that she saw the person claiming to be her daughter looked pretty much like her other daughter.

It would be nice to say this rare success had immediately gone well. But the mother is now as it were grieving for the child she did not have for thirty seven years, while the same but now adult child helps her through confusion and distress. That’s also how things are.

Monday 21 November 2011

Icelight - in Best Five Thrillers of 2011

I have just heard that Icelight is number 2 in the Daily Telegraph's Best Five Thrillers of 2011.

Very nice news!

Thursday 17 November 2011

Apologies, Allies and Drop Caps

Yesterday I was contacted by Nicholas Blincoe who kindly pointed out that in his ebook version of Washington Shadow my name was, in the table of contents, given as Ally. This is, I hope now was, the case on Amazon, Waterstones, Apple and so on.

More importantly there is a hiccup at the beginning of each chapter. It is ‘the drop cap problem’. In the printed book each chapter begins with a very large opening letter and continues in upper case for a couple of words.

This has not transferred to the e-version. In fact the first letter has gone up a line and the following letters are a line down, either headless or, in some cases providing a new word.

Thus and for example we have






I got straight on to John Murray and they have got straight on to sorting out the problems. These apparently afflict The Maze of Cadiz as well as Washington Shadow.

I am told Icelight is fine.

My apologies to any readers who have wondered why I should be talking about hens – and thanks again to Nicholas Blincoe for pointing out the mistakes.

Writers are sent author’s copies of their work in print. I wonder if it wouldn’t also be a good idea for publishers to send the e-version as well?

Monday 14 November 2011


My father-in-law clocked up 93 last Friday. Yes, he was born on Armistice Day, on 11-11 -1918. Had he been a girl he would have been called Irene. Irene means peace. I don’t know what the male equivalent is. He was called John.

Naturally we went over to see him and found him pretty well, though mildly amused by all the 11-11-11 cards.

He was more bemused by the poppy business, particularly as applied to the English football team’s insistence on wearing what turned out to be arm bands when they played Spain in a friendly match on November 11.

Like many of his generation, he is appalled by what he calls ‘the arm punching’ celebrations of present day millionaire footballers. ‘Arm-punching’ includes somersaults, group hugs and badge kissing.

May I be frank? I don’t think he has the slightest desire to shake John Terry’s hand.

On a wider level, he is also rather baffled by the poppy insistence. On graduating in 1939, he joined up three months before the declaration of war because he knew war was coming.

He considers himself very lucky, despite weighing six stone when he got out of Burma. His great friend John Wishart died on D-Day. My brother-in-law has Christopher as a second name for another dead friend.

But the thing about being 93 is that you get to consider a long life. And while WW2 was an absolute game changer that doesn’t mean you can’t think about it.

We gave him Max Hastings’ All Hell Broke Loose. His first reaction? ‘We’re beginning to bite the bullet’.

Now my father-in-law has thought for some time that the Russians beat the Germans and the USA beat the Japanese. The British, apart from a brave and rather lucky window, were fortunate to tag along.

But one of his standards is the deaths suffered. The Russians lost millions. The Germans lost about half that number. The British? However cruel this may sound, surprisingly few.

John Wishart, for example, had four years of doing nothing very much until D-Day. My father-in-law himself says he rarely experienced danger – he only found out relatively recently that the commanding officer who sent him and others into Burma was summarily relieved of his post while they were tackling unmapped terrain with neither adequate equipment nor medication. They were sent out in leather boots that rotted within days.

To a considerable extent, military mismanagement dominated the lives and deaths of the British troops. When my father-in-law got to Mumbai (then Bombay), the main preoccupation was whether anyone had thought to countermand the order to sail on to Japanese occupied Singapore. The ship ahead kept sailing and the Gordon Highlanders disembarked into captivity.

John Wishart really died. He stepped off a landing craft on D-Day and was mown down. And it’s partly out of respect for an old friend that my father in law thinks poppies have become as fatuous as ‘arm punching’.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Kerosene and Pink Diamonds.

When I talked with Laura Wilson at the Electric Theatre in Guildford on October 22 we touched on the portrayal of history in film – mostly from the humble aspect of how people actually looked, moved and behaved in the 1940s and early 1950s.

I have fairly recently seen two films with a similar subject - a young woman agrees to ensnare an enemy official for what could be called a cause greater than her own physical and emotional well-being and even survival. The films are Black Book (2006) and Lust, Caution (2007). The first is set in Holland during WW2 and the second in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of China. Both end grimly, with multiple deaths.

Neither is a bad film, some of the performances are excellent. Tang Wei’s portrayal of her character in Ang Lee’s film is remarkable, nuanced and very brave.

But I want to concentrate on the look of the films. Let me put it this way - there are a lot of very good looking people, flawless teeth and a considerable expenditure and effort on stylish clothes and vehicles.

Now I have nothing against costume designers, art directors and careful lighting. But a stylish gleam does miss a lot that could inform the anguish and dilemmas the protagonists have to deal with. I don’t know how divine details are but they matter and I’d suggest, for this viewer anyway, that they are better rendered without too much prettification.

The Dutch film is not based on a book. Of course it is true that we all bring our own lives to reactions. One of my father’s closest friends was a Dutch mathematician. Aged seventeen when the Nazis invaded, his farmer parents were, of course, beside themselves with fear that he would be taken away to work camp or worse. The result was that he spent the ‘next two years dressed as girl or hiding in the woodpile.’ Of course it isn’t fair for me to ask the film makers to have this kind of very grim surrealism inform their work but I did find the sheer silk, well-cut trousers and slightly stressed new knitwear a distraction.

Lust, Caution is based on a short story by Eileen Chang. I kindled this up. Within a couple of pages there is the kind of passage that shows why words can outdo film images. It involves the hoarding of ‘Kerosene or pink diamonds’ – and reveals the world of collaborators’ wives in Shanghai as they play Mahjong. Kerosene was the highly inflammable fuel for lamps, heaters and, for the poor, cooking. It was dyed pink. It illustrates succinctly and precisely the unease of these women: they dread poverty and they need their wealth to be easily transportable and to keep its value.

Ang Lee is very respectful of his source. It may just be I am getting old. But movies simply don’t allow the same kind of appreciation of the world behind such a remark. Not of course when you are watching beautiful people exquisitely dressed and lit.

Still photographs work however. In the last day or so I have been looking at photographs published in some British newspapers. They come from an exhibition called “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936 – 1951” at The Jewish Museum in New York from November 04 2011 – March 25 2012.

I have ‘borrowed’ one for this blog. It shows a film poster of a book I mention in the next Peter Cotton and has that wonderful boy and tyre. Yes, it’s a frame but it has all kinds of possibilities and stories.

My father’s tall Dutch friend grew his hair and wore a dress and hid in the woodpile, looking at the mathematical possibilities in curled woodlice. The last time I saw him he asked me what the British had against mixer taps or faucets. A little later he said his main memory of his time in the woodpile was smell. ‘I stank’ he said.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Films can stink but they can’t invoke smell. I don’t know the smell of kerosene but my husband remembers it well from his childhood in Africa.

Friday 28 October 2011

London Book Award

I heard yesterday that Icelight has been nominated for the London Book Award, short list to be announced in June. There is a review of the book on the London Festival Fringe website - click here -and also a short interview with me click here.

So far, fellow nominees are Jill Dawson for 'Lucky Bunny', and ~Amanda Coe for 'What they do in the Dark'. More will be added over the months.

Very nice to be nominated.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Goldsboro, Guildford and Period Teeth

Last Friday morning I travelled down from Edinburgh to London by train. Waverley Station in Edinburgh is being revamped – black tunnels for passengers enlivened I suppose by a large hen party wearing small green antlers. Kings Cross has been a work in progress for so long I can’t remember when it wasn’t.

I had lunch with my lovely editor Kate Parkin from John Murray near Leicester Square because I had to go on to Goldsboro bookshop in Cecil Court. Great as always to see David Headley, who sat me down at one end of a table (the other end was occupied by R.J. Ellory who was signing copies of his latest book) and gave me a big pile of copies of Icelight, which are now all signed and dated and some lined.

Next stop was Guildford Festival on Saturday at the Electric Theatre. The Electric part comes from the previous use of the building, now converted into a friendly public space. I am never that keen to be on a stage in an armchair – too static and too far from the audience – but the session went very well. Peter Guttridge was the moderator, as always exceptionally well prepared and skilled. I’d met Peter before as he’d chaired a panel I was on at Crimefest a couple of years ago.

This was the first time I’d met Laura Wilson, winner of the Ellis Peters award a couple of years ago, who has recently published A Capital Crime. We had been put together because we had both used the post-war years of austerity and rationing as background.

Our conversation was easy and enjoyable. To a degree both of us write to show how we are where we are now because of reactions and actions then. It’s a living link.

We had lots of common points to discuss, including the use of real situations and real people, that both of us had characters who developed over a number of books, that we had both used childhood memories to inform our most recent novels, that we both used and valued films of the time and that we had both talked to people with a connection to what we were describing.

At the end, someone asked how we would feel about having our books adapted for television or film, and which actor we would like to play the part of our main characters. Neither of us came up with a name. Laura said any candidates she could think of were long dead, and she had a problem with perfect Hollywood white teeth for a D.I. in the nineteen forties.

As we talked of the possibilities of period dentistry, I remembered that after Washington Shadow came out, a reader wrote to tell me that in his mind, Katherine was played by Scarlett Johansonn. If only.

After the weekend, I found an appreciative email from a reader in Lancaster who had read the first two books and was about to start Icelight. He said he was awaiting the film version with Ralph Fiennes as Peter Cotton.

I did point out Cotton is 28 in 1947 and Ralph is a little older. Back in Guildford my sister told me the event had gone well. I believed her. She had bought Laura’s Stratton’s War.

Monday 17 October 2011

Who Do You Think You Are? – The Spanish ‘Lost’ Babies

Tomorrow, October 18, the BBC is showing a documentary on a subject I have already mentioned on this blog in May – the ghastly practice during the Franco regime, and possibly up to the nineties, of removing new-born children from ‘unsuitable’ mothers and selling them on to ‘approved’ parents. The mothers were told their child had died.

The present estimate for the number of times this was done is about 300,000. That’s 300,000 people of course, now with different names, sometimes in different countries. Doubtless there was a ‘moral’ justification – at least some of the mothers would have been ‘unwed’ - but it was also a business, carried out by members of the Spanish Church, doctors and adoption agencies - and money was involved.

There are some truly weird details. Some mothers were told the child had already been buried. Others got to accompany tiny coffins to the cemetery. Some of the coffins have now been found to contain small animal bones. What were the perpetrators thinking? Presumably some sort of undertaker really did put a rabbit in a coffin and seal it up.

Right now there are a lot of distressed people trying to match themselves up with the help of DNA analysis.

But what struck me as odd when I read recent reports was how long the business had continued. After all Franco died in 1975. Spanish democracy started a couple of years later and attitudes changed very fast.

Then I remembered something personal. In the seventies we tried to adopt a child in Spain. We already had a son. I had had a miscarriage. It occurred to us to adopt a girl. Advice around us was not favourable. ‘What if the girl had ‘bad blood?’ We paid no attention.

I was then called to fill in as a translator at a drug trial. In conversation with the President of the Court I learnt I could adopt tomorrow. There were 167 children waiting for adoption. I could have two if I liked. What about nationality? It simply wasn’t a problem. Why didn’t we go to the orphanage and pick one.

We then ran into a Franco period law. We were not old enough. We had to be 35. And that was that.

When I did hit 35 I remembered this. I then found out that, post Franco, I was too old to adopt. More to my point there were no children to adopt.

And that presumably is why the business continued. It simply adapted to new conditions and provided a service to those desperate to have a child at the expense of ‘unsuitable’ mothers.

Friday 14 October 2011

Publication Day, Icelight

Yesterday, flowers from my agent and two lovely online reviews heralded publication day for Icelight, as well as the news that four national newspapers are reviewing - date to be confirmed.

Next stop, Guildford Book Festival on 22nd together with Laura Wilson, talking about our books. If you're in the area, come along and see us.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Football – A Question of Culture

I have to admit my interest in football (soccer) is next to nil but my interest in education is long standing.

Last night Spain played Scotland in the last qualifying match for the competition to be held in Poland and the Ukraine in 2012. The Spanish team won this as they have won each of their qualifying matches and Scotland failed to qualify.

Any personal interest of mine involved my two and a half year-old grandson. His Spanish father – his mother is half Scottish – thought this might be a good time to introduce him to football. On one side he had a point.

But the match set me thinking. 25 years ago both Spanish and Scottish teams were at the World Cup in Mexico. The Scots as usual did not get through the early stages. The Spanish did, but then ‘choked’. It was what they did. In every international competition Spain would hope and then crumble. In 1986 a Spain-Scotland match was not immediately a Spanish win.

How to explain the subsequent Spanish improvements and worsening Scottish inabilities? Actually, it’s not that difficult.

The Spanish school their players. I once heard one of the teachers explain that the young prospects were taught how to be polite, how to use a knife and fork if necessary, indeed taught everything they needed from financial savvy to how to give interviews.

At one level this is the Barcelona set-up in which young players are brought up on ‘la granja’ – the farm. It’s not Orwellian. And the training concentrates on the basics. Ball control, precise passing, moving to receive a pass, acquiring fast feet and, when needed, very fast ball. The other two important but simple lessons are a) - if you have the skills to keep the ball the other team don’t have it and b) - you really are part of a team.

Two examples. Yesterday Scottish players had difficulty ‘cushioning’ the ball on their chests. Instead the ball bounced off out of reach. This is basic. The other was when a player called Goodwillie blasted the ball into the crowd when a simple pass to another player would have been a tap in goal.

Awareness from the players that they are in a team is vital to Spanish success. It’s not that all the players are phenomenally talented. But they all know what to do and there are at least three players for every position.

In other words truly talented players (the Argentine Messi for example) come along rarely but considerable degrees of competence are available to any nation that bothers to learn from a system – and yes, improve on it.

Teamwork also removes some of the pressure on individuals. It seems to work.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Two Days to Publication Day for Icelight

Just two days to go before the official publication day for Icelight - although it is already available on Amazon UK both as a hardback and on kindle.

If you live in the US, you will have to wait until December 15th before it is available on - again both in hardback and kindle. but in the meantime, perhaps you might like to read how I met the "real" Peter Cotton - here.

I am working hard on 'Black Bear' -not long to go!

Friday 30 September 2011

Less than two weeks to publication date for Icelight

Less than two weeks to go to publication date.

Over on Shots Ezine - click here - you can read about how childhood memories of Purley, Croydon and London contributed to the setting and story of 'Icelight'

Over on Goodreads, more people - readers and writers - have joined our chat. To see what everyone is talking about, click here

Thursday 29 September 2011

Looters storm streets to get a copy of To Kill a Tsar

Today is paperback publication day for To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams - Congratulations Andrew!

To see the effect it is having, click on this link

Andrew and I are chatting over on Good reads - see our initial chat in my previous post.
We have now been joined by novelists Elliott Hall and Laurence O'Brien, as well as a number of readers from both the UK and the US. To see how the conversation is developing, click here

Monday 26 September 2011

The Role of History in the Making of Stories

Over on Goodreads, Andrew Williams and I chat about The Role of History in the Making of Stories - and other things - and we will be available to chat and answer questions for the next few weeks. For those of you who are not on Goodreads, here is our chat. We'd love to hear your comments and answer any of your questions, so you can either do that by commenting here on this blog, or, if you are a member, join the group on Goodreads.

Andrew’s book The Poison Tide will be published in 2012. To Kill A Tsar is published in paperback on September 29th 2011.

My latest book, Icelight, the third in the Peter Cotton series, is published on October 13th 2011. Black Bear will be published late in 2012.

Here is our chat:

Novelists Aly Monroe, author of The Maze of Cadiz, Washington Shadow and Icelight, and Andrew Williams, author of The Interrogator and To Kill a Tsar, chat about the role of history in the making of their stories. Both were shortlisted for the 2010 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Fiction Award

Aly: You told me your parents were history teachers. How much was history a part of your childhood, and how much does it give you your ideas?

Andrew: Lots and lots. I’ve always been fascinated by the past. Yes, my parents were history teachers and I think I could name the buildings of a medieval monastery by the time I was ten.

Aly: A bit of a history geek from an early age then?

Andrew: I did like football too. But all my stories draw on real people and events. Sometimes I change names, sometimes I don’t. Of course, I’m telling a story so I tinker with the facts, but I hate making mistakes with the history. I mean, I’m happy to repaint people and events just as long as I know why I’m doing it. If I am economical with the actualité you’ll find the reason in the historical note at the back of the book. I feel a responsibility to the history, and so do the writers I admire most. It’s a shocking cliché, I know, but truth is often – I would say ‘usually’ – stranger and more compelling that pure fiction, at least as a big backdrop.

By the way, I’m not sure I think of myself as a historical novelist, just a thriller writer who sets his stories in the recent past.

Aly: My case is a little different. My parents weren’t history teachers (though my father started out as a university teacher), but my grandparents on both sides were immigrants, and I think this may have influenced me in a number of ways – not only my interest in the recent past but also in half belonging to other places.

My books are set just within living memory. So the history part of what I write often begins with things I have heard directly from people who had experience of the time and events I’m writing about. This provides a springboard for research. This was the case with The Maze of Cadiz, when people in Spain talked to me of their experiences under the Franco regime. It was also the case for the initial idea of the Peter Cotton series - and the character of Peter Cotton himself.

Andrew: So what especially attracts you about the past rather than the present day for your stories?

Aly: I’m interested in how people are moulded by the particular time and place that they inhabit, and how they react to it. Readers have their own backgrounds and have lived, or more likely know people who have lived, through the time described. It’s more Grandpa than Cleopatra’s handmaiden because I like that living link. Asps are fine, but women using pencils to draw a false stocking seam on their wartime legs is also interesting, as is the knicker elastic problem post war.

What about you?

Andrew: I am interested in ordinary people’s lives in extraordinary times; in wars, periods of political upheaval or revolution, above all in conflict.

I have only a passing academic interest in the swords and sandals history of the distant past. I understand my characters because the world they inhabit isn’t so very different from mine. I can imagine my Great-Great Grandfather Jesse Williams following events in Russia in his newspaper. He might have read the reports of The Times’ correspondent in Petersburg, George Dobson. Well, when I was researching To Kill, I read Dobson’s dispatches too. All the sources necessary to flesh out the bones of the history are there. I have the context for the love, friendship, hope, despair, betrayal and grief that are common to all lives, and those are the things that interest me most. The recent past of my stories doesn’t seem such a foreign country. Not so foreign I can’t ask of myself and the reader: what would you do if you were hunted by the tsar’s secret police?

Aly: Where do the first seeds for your stories come from?

Andrew: A line in a book, an interview on the radio, a name on a website; something that captures my imagination and transports me back through history. With To Kill A Tsar it was an engraving on a friend’s wall of his Scots-Russian ancestor; it was a fascination with terrorist violence born of many years covering Northern Ireland; and it was a question: what would a comfortable British liberal do in an autocracy like tsarist Russia where peaceful protest for democracy might earn a summary sentence of twenty years in a Siberian camp? Can terrorist violence be justified in such a place and what would happen if, like the doctor hero of my story, those you are close to are planning to commit murder in the name of freedom?

Aly: The beginnings of a story for me usually come from things stored up in my mind – loose images or voices remembered, that become characters if you place them in a setting, concentrate and let them grow. That probably sounds a bit like organic gardening! The point is that it is not entirely a conscious process. You have to let the characters react to each other and to their context and circumstances. The history and the research are the more conscious part of the process.

For the first book, coming to Scotland after many years in Spain gave me a kind of distance and allowed me to listen again to some of those voices of Spanish people who had talked to me. That eventually led to The Maze of Cadiz. One of the main starting points for Peter Cotton himself was looking at family photos from the forties and realising that the people looking back at me were the same age – or younger than my children. It gave me an almost maternal feeling – and that gave me my period. The first seeds for Icelight came from childhood memories of my own – a freezing winter, a quiet suburban road, a shard of glass in a tree trunk, smeared with blood.

Henry James said you can never really do a historical novel. You're always writing about your own time. Do you agree?

Andrew: Up to a point, yes. It is an easy trap to fall into. All of us have read ‘historical’ novels that make almost no effort to capture the spirit of the time, and some are best sellers, so their authors must be giving their readers what they want. I do research the feelings and thoughts of my characters pretty exhaustively. I think it’s a little easier for me than the Tudor and Viking lot because I’m not excavating too deeply.

Some of the real people in To Kill A Tsar left their own accounts of the events I relate in my story. Actually, the historian faces the same dilemma of interpreting the past with the benefit of hindsight. But with the greatest of respect to Mr. Henry James, I think the best historians and novelists just about manage to pull it off: I do my best to learn from them.

Do you agree with James?

Aly: Absolutely. James was talking about doing justice to past. The longer the time, the less possibility of justice and the greater the impositions of a modern mind-set. It’s one of the reasons I write in the period I do. The underpinning of the Peter Cotton series is an examination of the post-war decline of Britain’s importance in the world as a colonial power, and a portrait of the time and place of each story. The chaotic and often incompetent or accidental nature of how things actually work that is shown in the books, is equally true today. Of course, in both Washington Shadow and Icelight there are evident chimes with the present economic crisis, but more importantly, the books show a version of how we got here.

Andrew: Do you plan the story before beginning a book? Do you stick to it?

Aly: One of the most enjoyable experiences of both writing and reading for me are the unexpected doors that open along the way. I don’t want to know everything I’m going to discover or exactly where the book is going before I begin.

I don’t begin with chapter by chapter plans. My plans are more in terms of key events or scenes that form the inner structure of the book – and that’s not only to do with the historical story. The final division into chapters is usually one of the last things I do – and it’s partly about the rhythm of the story. I also have different sections in each chapter – for the same reason.

So I do plan in broad terms, but as I’m working, I’m delighted when I discover or think of something I didn’t count on to begin with. Sometimes it’s a character who might have seemed insignificant at the first planning stage but grows and becomes more important. Some of these characters then go on to become significant characters in following books. This is the case with Ed Lowell, a Boston Brahmin in Icelight – he will have a significant role in Black Bear, the fourth Cotton book. And also Herbert Butterworth, the Chancery’s ‘archivist’ - in Washington Shadow. He will appear again in a much larger way in Black Bear.

What about you?

Andrew: I plan it very carefully. I used to write documentary scripts for the BBC. It was important to keep things tight because shooting and editing days cost a lot of money, so I always structured the story very carefully first. Old habits die hard and I do the same with a book – chapter by chapter. But once I begin to write, it changes; chapters, characters and storylines appear and disappear. Everyone has their own way of going about things. Some people write almost nothing down first – perhaps they don’t write history thrillers.

How much do things you discover along the way influence the direction of the story?

Aly: Actually, a lot. As I was writing and researching Washington Shadow, the sheer lack of comprehension on the part of the British government of what the negotiations for an American loan really involved and the desperation of the Keynes delegation, handling both London and Washington, as victors with a begging bowl struggling to remain players in the new world order, gradually came home to me and set the atmosphere of the book. And in plot terms, Tibbets’ role in the story did not come to me until I was some way into the writing.

And there was a real change in Icelight. In the first two books, I did not give speaking parts to real people. They were there, but as part of the setting. But when I was writing Icelight, some of the ghastly actions I discovered taken by certain people at the time made me decide to include them as speaking characters in the book, under different names. These things definitely influenced the push of the story.

Andrew: For me, the themes remain pretty much the same, but how I tease them out through the story changes a good deal. Some characters come to the fore, some fall off the page. I wasn’t entirely sure how To Kill would end until I got there. One strand of the story might have ended a number of different ways. A couple of friends felt the ending of The Interrogator should have been darker; I considered that very carefully at the time. I’m still not sure they aren’t right.

Aly: Can you imagine yourself writing a novel set in the present day?

Andrew: I would like to. I have an idea for a novel set in the 1990’s during the war in the former Yugoslavia. I made a couple of programmes on the conflict, and have been nurturing an idea for a story for almost ten years. The war in Bosnia is still the past, but edging closer to the present. First a spy thriller, The Poison Tide, telling the story of a secret service operation in Berlin and New York in 1915-16.

What about you?

Aly: It’s an interesting question. Why not? It’s a different kind of challenge. But I don’t feel that as a novelist I am necessarily the best commentator on current events, so it would be a different kind of novel. I do have some other books in store that have nothing to do with Peter Cotton, although when I look at them, they are also set in the recent past. But before that for me, the task is to finish Black Bear, which will take Peter Cotton back to the US. It’s a very different kind of book – and Cotton will find himself plunged in a situation experienced by the ‘real’ Peter Cotton (see ‘Beyond the Books’ on my website) – or at least that is what he told me.

The Poison Tide will be published in 2012. To Kill A Tsar is published in paperback on September 29th 2011.

Icelight is published on October 13th 2011 and Black Bear will be published late in 2012.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Sound Effects and Locksmiths

Recent articles about whether we want to hear sound effects when reading Ebooks made me feel uneasy, and I've been trying to work out what was bothering me.

When we read fiction, each one of us creates a mental impression – which has both visual and auditory elements, albeit tenuous, hovering on the edge of our perception – of the characters and the story. This is what makes reading a highly personal experience, and what makes it exciting. Reading is a solitary, outwardly quiet activity, but inwardly it is an act of imagination, the reader’s personal relationship and interaction with a written text and an author’s voice. Wouldn’t a soundtrack intrude on that process? Give us a someone else’s reactions to what we are reading before we have time to construct our own?

I’ve always been interested in the way film music can influence our response to a film. Many years ago I saw a television programme with André Previn giving us something of a master class on this. He was married to Mia Farrow at the time and to demonstrate his point, he had filmed a simple scene which consisted of Mia Farrow sitting at a table. She was still, and the expression on her face was completely neutral. We were shown this first without music, then with different musical accompaniment. What was striking was that, depending on the music, she looked happy, irritated, anxious or scared. We knew it was the same piece of film – but the different sound tracks were playing tricks on our eyes and our impressions. We were being presented with a series of ready-made interpretations of the scene.

During the years that I was a teacher, I noticed that the way young people recounted films they had seen or books they had read underwent a definite change. What later pupils gave over was a series of images (often with sound effects included) – but without the verbal ‘sutures of sense’ which, at least from a traditional point of view, give form, structure and time to a narrative. This meant that I was often no wiser as to what the story was ‘about’ – perhaps in fact, missing the point?

I noticed that this reflected the pacing of the films they were watching – one sensation following another without slowing it all down by going into the whys and hows of the story (as the books I am presently writing attempt to answer the whys and the hows, I find this particularly interesting). It also reflected the sound tracks of the films. Film music itself, at least popular film music, has changed over the decades. It now has much less ‘narrative shape’ and is constructed more around recurring riffs - also used (although I am no expert) in video games. What I find particularly interesting is the effect this might be having on our brains and our relationship with narrative. Does it mean, for example, that the synapses enabling us to relate cause and effect are not being developed in the same way? Is a new grammar of thought emerging – much more about sensation and juxtaposition than about cause and effect and context? And does this have an effect on people’s reactions to the world and their actions?

Of course, people are reading less than before. People receive information and entertainment in other ways. The reading experience is moving on from paper to other media. But just as the printed word revolutionised access to written material and also led to people having less retentive memories ( a necessary feature and bi-product of an oral tradition) , I suspect that the present changes we are witnessing will have a comparable effect on our brains, how we perceive things, and our interpretative faculties . Is this bad? Not necessarily – just different. But if we add a pre-prepared soundtrack to our reading, we are surely running the risk of cramping the development of our imagination. And that feels wrong.

It is about the value we place on reading. And the extent to which people are unaware they are being manipulated.

Recently I have been watching with some fascination my now two-year-old grandson’s relationship with stories and narrative. A lot of the new words and phrases he incorporates into his speech come from his favourite stories. But before he came to visit this summer with his parents, he had introduced us, via Skype, to his enthusiasm for the Jungle Book, acquired through viewing the Disney film version, and would enact and recount the scenes with great enthusiasm. So I decided to hunt down a hardback version of the book with illustrations, which I found, second-hand on Amazon. The book was nicely produced, but, I had to admit, the line drawings were not too much like the Disney images, so I was curious to see the reaction. It took him a couple of minutes as he turned the pages, but then his face lit up and he happily pointed out Baloo, Bagheera, Mowgli and Shere Khan.

You could say he’s lucky, of course. I live in a flat in Edinburgh. There is a flat below us and a flat above, and there is a common entrance. Yesterday evening, quite early, there was a loud bang. At that stage there was no narrative. A dog barked, some noise on the stairs.

Later that evening and this morning, some narrative was provided. A burglar of the ‘opportunist’ type broke into the main entrance. One lock gone. He tried our upstairs neighbours' flat. They were in, heard a scraping noise, but not more. A second lock spoiled. I don’t know why the burglar ignored us but he did. He went downstairs. Our downstairs neighbour heard scratching and as he went to the door it flew open and the burglar fell forward flat on his opportunistic face. He then fled. That’s three out of four locks broken, nothing stolen – and the police know who he is. I’m not sure why they call him an opportunist, but locksmiths on Sunday call-out must be doing well.

So last night I understood the sound effects. It’s the narrative that’s poor – and expensive.

Somehow I don’t think our opportunistic burglar has read the Jungle Book.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Read a taster of Icelight

With the publication date of Icelight drawing closer (13 October), I'm gradually making changes to the website -

If you'd like to, you can read a Q&A about the book and an extract.
You will also find a link to the first advance review.

Look out for more additions in the next days.

Sunday 28 August 2011

ASLA Party Edinburgh Book Fest.

This year I haven’t been to anything at the Edinburgh Book Festival - I’ve been following it from afar, partly due to various visits and other occupations - but last night I went to the party hosted by the Association of Scottish Literary Agents. In spite of the rainy evening there was a pretty good turnout (though some habitual faces missing - where was my acquaintance and fellow writer from Inverness, Erica Munro who I chat to every year at this party?). I have to admit that, as I was going in, I was relieved to see someone bearing a tray with glasses of wine rather than the cider of the previous year. A good move.

I had interesting chats with familiar and new faces too many to mention (learning along the way that the South Africans are preparing themselves to set up a tabloid press ... ), but including, Bob McDevett of Hachette Scotland, and author, agent and E-book expert extraordinaire Allan Guthrie. Interesting times – instructive and illuminating conversations with both of them. I also had a lovely long chat with agent and ASLA Secretary Lindsey Fraser, finally met Nicola Morgan, and was delighted to see that the talented Shona, formerly intern for my agent Maggie McKernan, is beginning to make her way in the publishing world. And of course, as ever, young Leo Gordon, son of Maggie, about to start secondary school at the Edinburgh Academy, handing round the plates of smoked salmon with panache, soaking up the info in the conversations, and(the only one being paid!) negotiating the price of his services with his mother. One to watch for the future.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

I Confess

I am rapidly becoming a fan of the Los Angeles Review of Books. It is, reportedly, the first major book review to be launched in the 21st century. The site’s first post, The Death of the Book, by Ben Ehrenreich, heralded the start of what is in fact a celebration of the continuing life of books – and the serious consideration of books.

It was started by Tom Lutz, and American writer and literary critic, presently Professor of Creative Writing and Media and Cultural Studies at University of California Riverside, in response to the shrinking space allotted to book reviews in the newspapers, to challenge the New York-centric emphasis on the literary world in the US and to include the diversity of literature being produced beyond the boundaries of the NY publishing world.

What you can view now is the temporary site, but when the full website is launched later this year, it will include an array of multimedia content, embracing new technologies for delivering books and ‘fostering the conversation about books and culture’.

While recognising the excellent contribution made by online blogs, the LARB’s aim is to make good use of professional journalists and critics who have been casualties of the reduced newspaper space, and to produce a ‘curated’ site, including different reviews, opinions and viewpoints, of new, classic and forgotten works by famous and unknown contributors from all over the world. They ‘hope to be of national and international interest, and to cover the national and international book scene’.

What is particularly refreshing for me is the eclectic nature of the content and the even-handed seriousness and respect that is given to widely different material and genres.

So far on the site you can find content ranging from philosophy to noir fiction, from biography to comics, from Heinrich Böll to Keith Richards, from Buster Keaton to Simone Weil, from Ross Macdonald to Nancy Mitford, from David Foster Wallace to Stephen King, and covering books published by publishers as varied as Virago, Little Brown, Busted Flush Press, Yale university and Black Lizard.

See for yourself. You will certainly find something you are interested in if you look – and if you are as curious and open-minded as the LARB, you may come across something you didn’t even realise might attract you.

I read recently of something called the Heffington Post – a Daly Mail-backed and very belated response and alternative to the Huffington Post. No sign in Britain yet of anything as remotely energetic and inclusive as the LARB.